Uganda's Ruler Museveni Defends Violent Crackdown In Bid For 6th Term

Jan 12, 2021
Originally published on January 12, 2021 2:23 pm

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni arrived at his ranch in Kisozi, about a five-hour drive from the capital Kampala, by helicopter. As the 76-year-old leader walked into an interview with NPR, he was jovial, cracking jokes, eager to show off the 10,000 cows that roam this ranch.

But just days away from an election on Thursday, the mood in the country is far more grave. Museveni is facing a formidable challenge from Robert Kyagulanyi, a singer-turned-politician better known by the stage name Bobi Wine.

At 38, Bobi Wine has electrified young people across Uganda. And Museveni, who has historically clamped down on anyone who poses a real threat to his power, has unleashed his security forces on him. In a press conference on Tuesday, Bobi Wine said the military had killed his driver and that his home was raided.

Even before the electoral campaign began, Bobi Wine was arrested several times. In one instance, he was tortured so badly, he flew to the United States to receive treatment.

In November, he was arrested once more, and 54 people were killed after protesters took to streets demanding his release. Journalists were attacked and detained while trying to cover his arrest.

Uganda has already changed the constitution twice, allowing Museveni to remain in power. In the past week, his government shut down social media and his police chief warned that anyone causing trouble on election day "will regret being born."

NPR spoke to Museveni for more than an hour last week, about the elections, his opponent and why, after 35 years in power, he is seeking a sixth term. These are some highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On pre-election violence

[Protesters] were attacking other people. Because they have been told that they should cause an uprising here like happened in Libya, like happened in Syria... so they are [American] agents. They are no longer part of a protest movement. They are now agents of foreign schemes, here.

According to the police procedures, if people are protesting, there is a way you handle it — but if now they overrun — overrun, for instance, a police station — you will have to stop it by using lethal fire. Rioting and attacking civilians and attacking property, it is something that we cannot accept.

On opposition leader Bobi Wine's arrests

He's not been arrested for putting forward ideas. He's being arrested for rioting and causing danger to other people. That's why he's been arrested. But there are other opposition leaders who are not being arrested. Why, why him?

There are other opposition leaders who have never even seen a police station. But these ones whom you are talking about, they want to use violence to influence people, and that one our society cannot allow.

On why he thinks he needs to be president for another term

[Ugandans] don't have to work hard. Now, that's a big struggle, which these know-it-all from [the] outside don't know, because in other parts of the world, people are pressured to work either by the environment, which is hostile, or by competition between man and man. But here, fools can survive.

On why he believes George Washington could leave office after eight years, but he can't after 35 years in power

Anybody can run [the U.S.]. The problem is that in our case, the direction is not set. So it's very risky, very risky. It actually showed the lack of seriousness of those who [say] that you just go, just [leave power]. People don't know whether to go north or south, and you say, "You just go."

Yes, if people are already clear that the direction is the north and ... there's no more argument about that, then anybody can lead. I can say now, you know the way, let me go.

On freedom of the press

Yes, we are committed to the freedom of the press, but see, the press, especially the Western press, is arrogant. You don't want to learn; you know it all. Then you come on and impose your ignorance on our society.

So that's the problem we are having. How can we continue dealing with these arrogant ignoramuses? So if they change their attitude from arrogance to inquisitiveness and investigation, I'm very happy.

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As here in the U.S., we continue to grapple with fallout from election-related violence, including the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, we have an exclusive interview now that focuses on a deadly election season underway around the world, in another country. That country is Uganda. Security forces there have opened fire on protesters, killing dozens. Opposition leaders and journalists have been beaten, have been arrested.

Now, the man at the center of this is President Yoweri Museveni. He has been in power 35 years. In the presidential election on Thursday, he'll be trying to fend off a challenge from Bobi Wine, a singer-turned-politician who has electrified young people in Uganda.

Well, Uganda is where we find NPR's Eyder Peralta. He's in the capital, Kampala, and he sat down with the president and asked about his latest moves to stay in power. Eyder is here to share that reporting now.

Hey there.


KELLY: So what does President Museveni say about all this violence - violence, again, just to stress, in which dozens of people have died?

PERALTA: He was totally unrepentant. In November, huge crowds came out to protest the arrest of opposition leader Bobi Wine, and just as quickly, security forces cracked down. More than 50 Ugandans were killed. And last week, one of the big newspapers here printed their pictures and their biographies. And I asked President Museveni about that.

They were chapati sellers. They were carpenters, students. I mean, how do you excuse this kind of violence against your own people?

YOWERI MUSEVENI: A chapati seller - when he attacks other people, he becomes a terrorist. They were attacking other people. Because they have been told that this would cause an uprising here - like happened in Libya, like happened in Syria, like happened - so they were agents. They are no longer part of a protest movement. They are now agents of foreign schemes here.

PERALTA: So the death penalty...


PERALTA: ...Is correct for somebody who throws a rock.

MUSEVENI: It's not the death penalty. According to the police procedures, if people are protesting you, there's a way you handle it. But if they now overrun - overrun, for instance, a police station - you have to stop it by using - use of fire.

KELLY: Eyder, did I hear right? He's suggesting that the protesters are foreign agents and, therefore, use of fire is justified.

PERALTA: That's right, yeah. And a few days ago, his top police officer said that if anyone causes trouble during the elections, they will regret that they were ever born. But I pushed the president on this. We spoke before the storming of the U.S. Capitol, but I told him that, for the most part, in the U.S., police rarely use live ammunition during civil unrest.

MUSEVENI: Again, you are comparing uncomparables (ph). You see there, the streets are wide. The infrastructure is better. It's a different story.

PERALTA: They attacked police stations. They burned down police stations.

MUSEVENI: Yeah, well, in the U.S., they had free labor of Africans for 300 years, so they can build new police stations. For us, we are struggling to build one police station. When we have just built it, you come, and you burn it, and then we'll build another one. So sorry, police.


MUSEVENI: No, sorry.

KELLY: Such a different perspective there. And I'll - notice he's invoking slavery on the way to not really answering your question, Eyder. You said people have been protesting because Bobi Wine, Museveni's opponent in the election, has been arrested. Where is he now? Has he been freed? Is he still under arrest?

PERALTA: He is free, but he says that he hasn't been able to campaign for the past five days because his whole campaign team has been arrested. And he says that last night, his driver was shot dead by the military...

KELLY: Oh, my goodness.

PERALTA: ...And that his house was raided early this morning. And, you know, the government says that they're arresting Bobi Wine and his supporters for flaunting COVID regulations. But look. The reality is that Museveni doesn't tolerate any serious challenges to his power. And Bobi Wine is a serious threat to him. I asked the president why his forces treat his opponents this way.

But you still believe that a core part of democracy is the open exchange of ideas, right? And...

MUSEVENI: Of course.

PERALTA: But right now, your opposition leader, your main opponent, Bobi Wine, is being arrested. I mean, I've lost count how many times he's been arrested.

MUSEVENI: He's not being arrested for putting forward ideas. He's being arrested for rioting and causing danger to other people. That's why he's being arrested.

PERALTA: But is that...

MUSEVENI: There are other opposition leaders that aren't being arrested. Why him?

PERALTA: Sure. But is this not a pattern here in Uganda? I mean, I think your previous opponent, Kizza Besigye - I think there was a joke, you know, that he had the Guinness World Record of most arrested man.

MUSEVENI: No, that...

PERALTA: I mean, should we not look at that as a pattern?

MUSEVENI: No, there are other opposition leaders who have never even seen a police station. But these ones whom you are talking about, they want to use violence to influence people. And that's something our society cannot allow.

PERALTA: And look, Mary Louise. Some protesters have thrown rocks and attacked police officers. But human rights groups say that the majority of the violence in Uganda is coming from the state.

KELLY: I'm told, Eyder, that your sit-down with the president went on for more than an hour. What is your big takeaway?

PERALTA: So I didn't get any sense that the president was worried about this upcoming election or that he intended to leave power anytime soon. He told me that he has enough money, so he doesn't need this job. But he says that he barely sleeps, working on the problems of the country. And he seems convinced that after 35 years, Uganda still needs him and that he is the only one who can lead the country into prosperity.

KELLY: That is NPR's Eyder Peralta talking from Kampala about his interview with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Eyder, thank you - cannot wait to hear the rest of your reporting about the elections all this week.

PERALTA: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.